The school year has ended and I am thrilled to report that I have learned a great deal these past ten months. During our Peace Corps training we were advised that it would take the first year in our sites to begin to feel comfortable, and to have a sense of how we would fit in to be of service to the Belizean people. Most of us put that concept way back in the recesses of our minds as we jumped in with both feet in our idealistic enthusiasm, but now I appreciate the truth of that statement. After a school year of observing children and teachers, designing lessons for children and workshops for teachers, I am finally beginning to have a sense of how I can be of more benefit to the Belizean teachers and students in the development of literacy.
Most of the students in grades 1-3 (Infant 2-Standard 2 in Belize) who read below grade level, have difficulty because of a shaky foundation in their reading instruction. Each case is unique, but some factors include:
- · Frequent absences due to illness, lice or rain
- · Frequent absences due to families moving back and forth between Belize and Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador
- · Frequent absences because parents keep students home to help take care of younger siblings
- · Limited Standard English (which is the language of instruction in Belize) upon arrival to school
- · Too young. Belize allows children to begin kindergarten (called Infant I) at age 4, and the cut-off date is January. So these children can be 4 years old during much of their kindergarten year. Many children throughout the world are not ready to learn to read until age 5 or 6.
- · Lack of preparation in oral language. Many teachers in preschool and kindergarten dive right into teaching letters and sounds without adequately preparing the children in phonemic awareness.
- · Lack of teacher preparation. Some teachers have at least an Associate Degree in Primary Education, but many have no preparation in child development or in the teaching of reading. Therefore, literacy instruction is uneven throughout the schools that I have seen. There will be one experienced, creative, energetic teacher alongside a struggling teacher. The Ministry of Education is making great strides in preparing their teachers and requiring that all teachers be certified.
- · Lack of differentiated instruction. This means that teachers deliver instruction on only one single level, even if the children do not understand or follow the lesson. Grouping by ability level is a new concept in Belizean education.
This year I have learned so much from the teachers, who make almost all of their own materials and have limited space in the classroom. They care about their children’s success in literacy, but have few opportunities to learn new ideas or methods. Therefore, they must be resourceful and creative. I’ve learned to admire the principals, many of whom are also teaching principals, and who must spend a great deal of their time repairing copy machines and school bells, and must also raise funds for their schools. I’ve learned a lot from the children who love any and all books that I bring to read to them or provide for them to read to me. It was so fulfilling to see children who in September did not know the alphabet in the last few months begin to read the simple books that I brought to their classes. This is why we become teachers!
Samarra receives an award for improvement in reading
Some of my reading students and their teacher, Mr. Nicholas
My most exciting adventures this past month were a trip to Belize City with my colleagues from the Education Center to see the children perform in the Festival of the Arts, and a trip, also with my colleagues to the National Spelling Bee in Spanish Lookout. Here are the photos.
Festival of the Arts
Students I work with from Light of the Valley School participating in the Festival
The National Spelling Bee
Can you guess who the sponsor is?
Caryn Cornejo, a student from Dangriga, won second place and was interviewed for Belizean TV
One Saturday a group of us Peace Corps Volunteers descended on Sandy Beach Restaurant in Hopkins, a village one hour from Dangriga. We went to help out the women's cooperative to reconstruct a landmark in Hopkins that burned down a few years ago. These Garifuna women are resurrecting a restaurant and resort, and our Peace Corps friend, Meghan is living in Hopkins and working with the women's cooperative to put their business back in action. We all went to help out with some painting. We also had the opportunity to harvest a couple of coconuts and learn about the Garifuna cuisine that the women prepare for their customers. We learned how to prepare the plantains for "hudutu", a mashed plantain dish that goes with a delicious fish stew, called "bundiga," prepared with red snapper and coconut milk.
Sandy Beach Women's Cooperative preparing a Garifuna meal
I got one! After chopping off the top with a machete, we stuck a straw in it and drank the sweet coconut water Mmmmmm!
Helping to mash the plantains with mortal and pestle. I lasted all of one minute. It takes a lot of muscle.
A parting shot: the view from Sandy Beach Restaurant